Monday, October 24, 2016

A Summer Without Butterflies

If you've ever wondered what the world would be like without the colorful whimsy of butterflies, you sort of found out if you lived in northeast Kansas this summer. (May have been the same in other parts of Kansas and the Midwest, but I only know about northeast Kansas.)

The dearth of butterflies was quite noticeable. Several people mentioned it to me, beginning in the spring. Even the Hackberry Emperor, which rises from driveways and sidewalks in clouds as you walk or drive, was noticeably lacking. The Cabbage White Butterfly, the one whose larvae devour cabbage family plants, made few appearances (yay!?). The lavender usually teems with butterflies of one kind or another when in bloom, but went undisturbed by fluttering wings.

Only a handful of local butterflies flitted their way across my garden.
Cloudless Sulphur going in for a landing.

Then sometime in mid- to late September -- as the hummingbirds abandoned the Lady in Red Salvia in my garden and hummed southward -- a fluttering of yellow appeared at the red blossoms. Butterflies that I tentatively identified as the Cloudless Sulphur (such a poetic name)
arrived, having wandered from Texas or some other southern state in typical haphazard fashion. They don't reproduce here because our winters are too cold for larval survival, but they wander up here anyway. Incidentally, Lady in Red Salvia is native to the southern U.S. and southward. I guess this looked like home to the Cloudless Sulphur.

Strange weather here, which was too warm, too cold, too wet, too hot, too dry... bouncy, bouncy, bouncy... most likely created the remarkable dearth of butterflies this year. However, they and other insect species have been on a decline due to overuse of pesticides and loss of habitat. We are losing populations of native plant species that feed our butterfly larvae. Plant more natives. Reduce your use of pesticides. Protect wild areas. I can tell you without a doubt that a world without butterflies is less colorful, and seems less magical. So do what you can. Do as a friend of mine does and encourage each butterfly you see. And while you're at it, bless the bees, too.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Falling into Autumn, and Stuff...

Lady in Red Salvia
September... and bird migrations are underway or just about to begin. We're in the middle of the hummingbird migration at this point. According to another blogger the adult ruby throated hummingbirds have left town and the "teenagers" are still hanging around.

One such teenager hangs around our place, taking sustenance from the masses of Lady in Red Salvia that spring up in our flower beds. I love these brilliant cousins to the garden sage. I received a packet of seeds from a friend several years ago, and since then I have not had to scatter any more seed. Lady in Red self sows prolifically and creates a spectacular late season show that inspires my heart and gives the hummingbirds food to fight over.

When we take our meals on the porch we frequently see the current hummer resident sitting atop a tomato cage a dozen or so feet from one cluster of Lady in Red. It occasionally swoops in to get a snack, then heads back to its perch to guard the flowers from any other "teens" that might want a sip. If another hummingbird dares to try to steal a sip we hear a mighty buzz (from the millions of wingbeats) and perhaps some chirps as the argument ensues.

Even in the rain the little bird sits on its perch or flies and hovers momentarily around the flowers in search of nectar. The particular tomato cage it sits on is empty. I could have taken it to winter storage with the other tomato cages, except for the hummingbird. I've pretty much given up on the tomatoes, except for the Sun Golds, a couple of paste tomatoes and one Henderson's Pink. And some of those
may come down in  a couple of weeks, long before frost threatens. It hasn't been a great year for tomatoes, although I do have a number of jars of roasted Black Plum tomatoes in the freezer, and three containers of dried paste tomatoes and two containers of dried Sun Golds in the pantry.

Aside from the weather slowing things down and aggravating the usual disease conditions, tomato hornworms ate up a lot of the foliage, leaving naked stems. The first hornworm I found got tossed into the woods, the next two I left in place because they looked like this....(look left)

Those little white things are cocoons (yes they do look like eggs, but they're not) of one species of braconid wasps that has an affinity for tomato and tobacco hornworms. These parasitoid wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the internal organs of the caterpillar then emerge through the caterpillar's skin and spin their tiny cocoons. Four or so days later, they emerge as adult wasps. Not fun for the caterpillar. I left this guy in place because I knew it wouldn't eat much more before melting away. The tomato hornworm is the larval form of one type of hawk moth --or is it a sphinx moth while the tobacco hornworm turns into the hawk moth -- something like that.

Other species of braconid wasps parasitize various other garden pests -- one Web site mentioned squash bugs... oh if only they'd parasitize the squash bugs "visiting" my garden.

In spite of the squash bugs, however, I still have some relatively healthy summer squash plants producing in the garden. One is Lemon Squash, which produces fruit the shape, size and color of -- you guessed it -- lemons. A neighbor gave me the seed saying that it seems to stand up to the squash bugs well, and indeed it has. One of the other plants is a yellow crookneck squash, which I had noticed in a previous year did not keel over from squash bug attack as quickly as other summer squashes. I've been picking the crooknecks very young, fearful that the plant will die before the fruit gets much size. But so far, so good.

The third type is a green scallop squash, which I planted because I happened to have the seed. I think one reason these squashes have held up is that I water them quite regularly. At least every other day a couple of dishpans full of water get dumped on them, as they are in a convenient location. Next year I'll try that tactic again, adding row cover in the early stages to prevent squash vine borer, and delay the attack of cucumber beetles and squash bugs. This year's squash were planted in late June, past the time when vine borers lay their eggs. Maybe I'll get enough squash to put in the freezer next year. Maybe. Possibly. You never know. I try not to get too attached to my squashes.
Far left, Yellow Crookneck; middle, Lemon Squash; front, Green Scallop Squash. The green striped ones are immature Luffa Gourds, which are edible in this stage. If left to mature, they get tough and when you strip away the skin and seeds you are left with the luffa (aka louffa) "sponge" popular as natural exfoliating bath sponges.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Something New...

Flowers and leaves of Bitter Melon, Momordica charantia.
A few weeks ago someone asked me "What's new in the garden? I know you've always got something new going on."

I heard disappointment in her voice when I lamely responded, "Oh, it's all pretty much the same old thing. I'm planting cauliflower again."


So then a few days later, maybe even the next day while in the garden I looked around and thought, "Why yes, I do have new things in the garden."

She was right. I've always got something new going on... or almost always.

Bitter melon fruit.
The first thing that jumped out at me in the was something I didn't plant so much for its culinary aspects as its health benefits; bitter melon (Momordica charantia), also known as bitter gourd, balsam pear, balsam apple and probably many other names. It is native to Asia, southern China and eastern India, and is a key part of Asian and Indian cuisine.

Bitter melon is, well, bitter, very much so. But when small amounts are added to highly seasoned foods they add a nicely bitter touch. I've said before (and will probably say on many other occasions) that we Americans should learn to cultivate a taste for bitter foods. Bitter flavors improve our digestion and all of us "angry Americans" could certainly benefit from better digestion. Plus, bitter melon possesses the ability to assist in controlling blood sugar. It can be useful in diabetic or pre-diabetic conditions. Please consult a professional with herbal knowledge before using it for these conditions. However, adding some bitter melon to your meals can't hurt.

Bitter melon apparently loved the craziness of our hot and not-so-wet weather. Online sources claim it requires regular fertilizing and moderate watering, but this plant has received nothing but the initial application of manure, and rainwater. And it's doing just dandy. A member of the cucumber/squash/melon/gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) bitter melon supposedly succumbs to all the ailments of members of that family. However, it does not appear to be bothered at all by the critters and diseases taking aim at my other cucurbits. (RIP watermelons)

It's actually a very pretty vine and could quite easily grow on a trellis in the ornamental garden. The other evening I noticed that the flowers, and perhaps foliage, also had a pleasant fragrance. So definitely look at it as having potential ornamental value.

Mouse melon, about grape size.
I had not clue what to expect from bitter melon, but am pleased. We finely chop small amounts and saute them slightly before adding to dishes. It works particularly well with curries, both Indian and Asian. Or slice and roast the melons before adding. I found one Indian recipe that I found interesting, a fried bitter melon ("karela" in Hindi) and coconut dish that is used as a condiment. I love coconut, but don't really "fry" anything, especially not deep frying (that's another topic on healthful cooking), so I adapted the recipe, also eliminating the sugar. Somewhat disappointing. Maybe I'll try again now that I've acquired a taste for it.

The Mexican sour gherkin is next on the "what's new" list. The sour gherkin, or "cucuamelon," AKA "mouse melon" (Melothria scabra) also belongs to the family of cucurbits. Its delicate vines and leaves are quite charming climbing up the empty end of the bean trellis. The tiny (oh so tiny) fruits are adorable, but are taking quite a long time to achieve any size, even though their mature size is that of a large grape. They did originate in Mexico and Central America and can be eaten fresh, pickled or cooked. Versatile, cute, and possessing a cucumbery taste. Not sure I will harvest enough to be worth pickling.

This louffa gourd flower is much bigger than those of the bitter melon and
mouse melon. And the little bee visiting this flower will ensure that another 
grows on the vine. 
The other night I picked one small, immature louffa gourd (Luffa aegyptiaca), yet another cucurbit. I found the seed at a local seed fair this spring and thought, "Why not?" (I get into real trouble with those two words, horticulturally, that is.) It is doing much better than my ordinary cucurbits, loving the heat. I've learned that I probably planted the seeds far too late to get mature gourds from which I can make sturdy scrubbing sponges. That's just fine. It's a pretty enough vine and the immature gourds are edible -- sort of like summer squash. It's always nice to get some kind of veggie that's not a brassica (cabbage/mustard family) or solonaceae (tomatoes, peppers, etc.). The one little louffa fruit I picked, about 8 inches long, was tender and edible. (Sorry, no pictures. I ate it.)

Then there is the Lemon Squash. My neighbor gave me the seed of this summer squash, saying it holds up to squash bugs better than zucchini. So far it's still alive and has two lemon-colored fruits. I'll give them a couple more days to put on some size and pick them, adding them to the little crookneck I picked yesterday. Since these summer squashes, which I planted in late June, are close outside the back door, I've been dumping water on them regularly. At least every other day. That may be the key to keeping them going during squash bug attack. Maybe. We'll see.

I think I'll stop here now. I've got a couple of other sort of new things, but they aren't cucurbits and I don't want to spoil the theme.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Then This Happens...

The garden provides many forms of surprises, often not pleasant ones -- like this year's onslaught of cucumber beetles and squash bugs in my watermelons.

However, the pleasant ones do exist in multitudes. You just need to get past focusing on weeds and worms and whacky weather.
Demure Naked Lady buds readying to open into
their gloriously decadent blossoms.

Sometimes the surprises aren't really surprises, they are simply sudden pleasantness. Such as the above"Naked Ladies" making their stately entrance early this week. They aren't a surprise in the fact that I knew I'd planted them. However, like the spring blooming bulbs and many other perennial plants, I often forget exactly where and how many I've planted. Or perhaps I thought they died out and suddenly, there they are.

Always curious about plants, especially the common, ordinary ones, I decided to do a bit of research on the Naked Lady, so called because the flower stalks appear only after the foliage has withered and been forgotten. Most people will know them as "Surprise Lilies," which are part of a group of flowers containing several species. The fragrant pink ones we see around here are Lycoris squamigera, which might be a hybrid of two other species. I don't know. I don't care. They are lovely. And so are the other species, the red and yellow spider lilies, yellow surprise lily, long tube surprise lily, magic lily, peppermint lily, and tie dye lily (which looks much like these "common" ones, but with a rich blue at the petal tips. During my research I discovered a nursery that sells many species and cultivars of these beautiful surprises. Check out their photo gallery. I may have to start a little collection... hmmm?

Other surprises catch me off guard. This evening I went out after dinner to dump my wheelbarrow load of freshly pulled weeds and put away my tools. As I wheeled everything back to the house I caught sight of masses of bright white, magenta and yellow blooms glowing in the dusky light. The Four-O'clocks (Myrabilis) had blossomed. I knew these plants were there, but had not really seen them at dusk, or paid much attention at all. Standing about five feet from them I caught a whiff of perfume in the air. The four-o'clocks also scented the night. Incredible. No photos of this could do the sight (or smell) justice. So, no photos.

But I will leave you with another colorful photo. For weeks we've watched as the Stanley plums ripened on the tree, becoming a deeper and deeper purple. They are in plain view of our favorite dining spot, so we see them frequently. They are almost ripe. We'll split them open and dry them for sweet treats later on. Not a surprise, precisely, but welcomed. Life is good.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Pay Attention

For the past few weeks the brilliant flowers of Royal Catchfly (Silene regia) have captured my attention whenever I sit on our screened in porch -- which is for practically every meal.

We watched the flower clusters slowly open, first a few bright red blossoms, then a few more, then it seemed as if they all exploded at once. I call them my floral fireworks. The blossoms are now fewer than in this photo (yes, I am slow at posting here), but lovely and eye-catching still. What's more, local hummingbirds also are drawn to the red flowers.

When I am out on the porch, my gaze frequently falls upon the floral fireworks display. Sometimes I outright stare. This is a temporary state of things, so I fill my now with as much of it as possible.

And the dragonflies... on some evenings, when the sunlight softens, squadrons of dragonflies provide an aerial show for supper-time entertainment. They speed in a straight line and suddenly change direction at 90 degrees. Or they appear to almost stop before zooming off, all the while hunting mosquitoes and other tiny flying things.

When dusk has turned the shadows in the woods black, I step out the back door or gaze out the window, watching for fireflies blinking love notes to each other.

This is summer as much as the heat and humidity... this beauty, this don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it magic. I must remember to take a moment to pay attention, to pause, quit sweating and working and notice Life. I have tried to take a few moments each evening to watch the fireflies, to scan the skies for dragonflies, to notice the easy grace of the buzzards soaring on hot winds. If I don't Life passes me by.

When I woke up this morning I dreaded getting out of bed. This was the first day of the "Excessive Heat Warning" that will hang around through Saturday. I lay in bed contemplating my list of tasks and wondered how it would be possible. I altered the plan slightly.

Even though the relative cool of the morning will be short-lived I do not rush through breakfast. I know how to sweat, how to take care of myself in the heat. I worked outside until noon today and even though my clothes were soaked with sweat, I didn't find the heat all that bad. Many of the tasks on my list were completed or at least started, and I brought in baskets of elderberries, cucumbers, long beans, ground cherry and so on. Not bad for a morning's work.

I spent the afternoon indoors cooking -- after I had a little post-lunch rest. No need to rush through that, either. It is late evening and I must decide whether to work on the pile of basil and/or the basket of elderberries, or whether to put them away and save the jobs for tomorrow...

It seems that the fireflies and Full Moon are calling me...

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Last night I watched fireflies flashing in the velvet dusk against the deep shadows of the woods.
I stood outside my backdoor and watched the show for 10 minutes or more, drinking in the beauty and magic of those moments. The air was balmy, warm but not uncomfortably so; the perfect temperature according to my standards. Comfortable to be naked, but not uncomfortable with a few bits of clothing.

Perfect moments lit by fairy lights.

I recalled many summer nights running around the yard with my siblings, catching fireflies -- or lightning bugs, as we prefered to call them. We'd collect them in jars with holes punched in the lids. My goal was to capture enough of the flashing bugs to make a lantern bright enough to read by.
I never achieved that goal, but as I thought back on those nights decades ago I had an urge to grab a jar and start collecting lightning bugs.

But I'd already showered and dispensed with any chiggers and ticks I'd picked up during my day of pouring out sweat as I harvested and watered berries and vegetables. So I remained safely on the back porch, basking in the evening as it slid through dusk and into full nightfall.
At that moment it was difficult to believe that the temperature forecast for the next day (today) was 100 degrees.

These past two weeks have been unusually hot for June. We typically don't register 100 degrees until July. Not only has it been hot, but rainfall has been incredibly sparse, a situation that is difficult to take on the heels of a period of frequent and high rainfall.

So for the past two weeks I've focused on keeping the vegetable garden watered. This year I laid soaker hoses -- as many as I had -- on some of the beds, including the long bed of blueberries, and the strawberries. That made the task easier and less time-consuming. Yet I still have to move the hose from one soaker to another, and still have to fill buckets for some things.

The heat has felt like a burden. I wake in the morning wishing I could stay in bed and sleep. But when I'm outside in the heat, soaking my shirt and jeans with sweat, my head protected by a broad-brimmed hat, it doesn't feel so bad. I feel myself sweating, but do not feel oppressed by the heat.
Until the middle of the afternoon after I've been standing too long in the sun (especially if I forget the hat) and feel the thirst building. Then I feel the heat pounding. Barefoot gardening is abandoned, as even the chipped wood mulch gets too hot for bare skin.

Not today, though. Today I picked a few things and finished the watering by 11:30 a.m. I spent the afternoon putting away produce, cleaning up the kitchen, and I even took a nap. Tomorrow the heat will have diminished some (only 91) and they say we have fair chance of rain (40 percent) tomorrow night and a bit of a chance almost every day for the next seven days with the temperatures easing back into the 80s.

Ah, to feel the rain on my face again. As with all things, this heat will pass. I've just got to hang in there.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Lettuce Have Fun

The peas have set blooms. My mouth drools at the thought of tender, sweet snap peas ready to pick, and better yet crunching in my mouth.

Have you ever taken a close look at pea blossoms, delicate little fairy flowers? Pretty things, aren't they?

As I wait for the pea pods to appear, I'm picking lettuce. Tender lettuce to go into my salads, along with spinach (which is bolting and won't be around much longer), arugula and baby mustard greens. I pull crisp radishes to slice among the green things (they won't be around much longer, either) and wait for the carrots to get big enough to pull.In a few weeks I can shred a bit of cabbage into the salads, as well.

Even these pretty pea blossoms could go into the salad to add a hint of pea flavor. But nipping off the flowers means fewer pods, and we can't have that.

While all kinds of things in the garden can be part of a salad, I want to focus on lettuce here. Not many of you get excited about lettuce, I am certain. It's just a salad green. Not much flavor or anything, just bulk. Although not the powerhouse that kale, broccoli and some other green veggies are lettuce still contains nutritional value, offering up vitamin K, folates, and a few others. Forget the iceberg lettuce if you're looking for nutrients, other types possess much more.

Our cultivated lettuce is closely related to this wild prickly lettuce spreading
rampantly through my garden.
Humans have cultivated lettuce for a long, long time. The ancient Egyptians cultivated lettuce at least 6,000 years ago, according to paintings in ancient Egyptian ruins. They started cultivating a wild lettuce for its seed, from which they extracted oil -- probably for food use, medicine, and/or cosmetic purposes. The oil might also have been used in religious ceremonies, as it was sacred to Min, their god of reproduction. They thought lettuce enhanced male virility, symbolized by the plant's ability to suddenly bolt (produce flower/seed stalks) and due to its milky sap. It was a symbol of sexual prowess and a promoter of love and childbearing -- good for both male and female. So they ate tons of it, especially after developing lettuce with succulent leaves.

That leafy lettuce likely was the precursor to today's Romaine lettuce varieties. Lettuce traveled out from Egypt, landing on the plates of Persian kings, apparently, and infiltrating Greek gardens. Today a second common name for romaine lettuce is Cos, named after a Greek island. Incidentally, the Greeks thought lettuce made men impotent, opposite of the Egyptians' view. And Greeks served lettuce at funerals.

Lovely red-splashed Yugoslavian Lettuce.
From Greece lettuce traveled to the Roman empire (not a far piece) where it obtained the name "romaine" lettuce because is was grown in the papal gardens of Rome, and reclaimed its value as an herb that enhances sexual potency. Then it spread through Europe, where it alternated between a fertility enhancer and a fertility detracter. A 17th century aphrodisiac contained lettuce, purslane and mint steeped in vinegar, while in the 19th century, Britons thought it induced infertility and sterility.

Lettuce probably took a much more roundabout path than described above, because it apparently did not reach Greek cultivation for a few thousand years after the Egyptians started cultivating it, and hit Rome several hundred years later. But this is a simple look at its quite long history.

Lettuce still provides Egypt with the seed oil for which it was originally cultivated. I found a couple of Web sites touting its powers as a food oil, cosmetic and medicine. The milky sap of lettuce also possesses medicinal qualities, which likely are far more pronounced in the bitter wild lettuces that weep much greater quantities of the sap. Cultivated lettuce produces more sap once it bolts. The genus name of cultivated and wild lettuces, Lactuca, is Latin for "milk-forming," indicating the sap was its most prominent and/or useful characteristic. The main medicinal use for the sap, as well as the oil, is to promote sleep. That characteristic earned it the name "sleepwort."

I find it interesting that lettuce, which prefers growing in cooler conditions and requires a fair amount of water to stay sweet and tender, originated in a hot, dry region like Egypt. Of course, they most likely did not mind when heat made the lettuce bitter. Our aversion to bitter flavors is a truly recent development and more pronounced in the U.S. than elsewhere. However, bitter flavors improve our digestion, causing the liver to work more effectively. I don't mind when the lettuce gets a little bitter, as a bit of oil and vinegar subdues the bitterness, without reducing its digestive benefits.
Lettuce grows well in containers. All you need is something 6 to 8 inches deep.

Today you can find more than 1,000 named lettuce cultivars, which exhibit many leaf shapes and coloration. I love the red varieties most. The most common types available to the home garden are iceberg/crisphead, leaf/bunched, butterhead, romaine/cos, and Batavian/summer crisp/French crisp. I discovered the Batavian or summer crisp lettuce last year and fell in love with its beautiful, large heads. During recent reading I discovered that it tends to stand longer in summer heat without bolting, so it will be my main summer lettuce. The Batavian, romaine and butterhead lettuces are best set out as transplants (unless you like thinning out direct-sown seedlings) so that you can give them space, like about 12 inches between plants. This gives you beautiful large heads. A more unusual type is Celtuce, or asparagus lettuce, also called "woju" in Asia where it is a delicacy. This type is grown for its tasty stalks.

The varieties now in my garden are Red Salad Bowl and (green) Salad Bowl, which are leaf varieties; Buttercrunch and Yugoslavian (butterhead types, which produce loose heads); Jericho romaine (one of the heat-tolerant varieties); and Concept Batavian. In the past I've tried a crisphead variety, just for kicks, but it didn't want to grow for me at all. I'm not crying over it because I don't consider those varieties worth the trouble. Then, of course, wild prickly lettuce grows everywhere. While technically edible, I don't include it in my wild foods harvest.

Take a stroll through the seed catalog's lettuce selection. Perhaps you won't make lettuce a main part of your garden, but you'll certainly want to try all the different, beautiful varieties.